Wednesday: Showalter, Woolf, Eliade, Tillich

Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side.

On a return flight from Glasgow today I read Elaine Showalter’s introduction to a new paperback edition of Mrs Dalloway. I mustn’t have read Woolf’s famous essay called Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, for I hadn’t come across the sentences of Woolf that she quotes.

Showalter writes, “Woolf warned, readers would have to get used to ‘a season of fragments or failures.’ They would have to be patient, to tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure.’ But their patience would be rewarded, for, she predicted, ‘we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature.'” It was surely true of Woolf’s writing, but turned out to be a spasm not an age. Soon enough we would return, not that we truly left, to the age of the nineteenth century novel, now mostly packaged in shorter and shorter bites for the consumption of weary workers seeking solace.

At home I came across another quote that made its mark. In the third of his journals, Mircea Eliade cites Paul Tillich as saying: “At whatever age one loses one’s mother, one remains an orphan forever. This is not the case with the death of the father.” I know from Tillich’s biography that he repressed his mother’s death and did not speak of her to anyone. My father refused to talk of my mother after her death, and I was, I think, ten or eleven years of age before a kindly aunt first raised the subject. Tillich biographers, Wilhelm and Marion Pauck wrote, “He sought her forever after in every Demeter or Persephone he pursued.”

All intertwined – Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Trilogy

It is reasonably rare, necessarily so, that a writer makes my senses quicken to a degree that I think about writing, reading, being, in ways that are interesting and useful. I’m reluctant to stop reading Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy, but must at some point to follow threads back to Woolf, Spinoza, Bergson and so forth.

Llansol’s writing is peopled with figures, ‘living entities, constructs, nodes inside the text that are not necessarily people, but patterns, templates, shapes, forms, and apparitions. The Llansolian text does not progress thematically, but by an association of several scenes of fulgor in which the figures are revealed.’ To read her writing is to appreciate that we are this unceasing stream of sensory phenomena, aware at some level of bodily existence, but with an embodied memory of everything we have read and thought. Llansol’s figures are her expression of Spinoza’s intuition that ‘nevertheless we feel and know by experience that we are eternal.’

On my third pass through the first book of Llansol’s trilogy, The Book of Communities, it became clear that it is something of a roadmap for how to read her writing, that she is not just experimenting with form, but thinking differently about reality. Her narrative is formed temporally, a complex realm where past, present and future, are all arranged on a single plane. This is of course brings to mind Woolf’s treatment of interior time in Mrs. Dalloway: ‘There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.’

Llansol extends Woolf’s notion that reality is powerfully shaped by our perceptions and associative memories. Her narrator and figures are an act of continual creation, mirroring the way her writing communes with the intellect of her readers during the act of reading. As Rilke put it in The Book of a Monk’s Life, ‘a hundred drinking roots, all intertwined.’

It is hard to believe that this trilogy represents Llansol’s literary debut, as well as her first work to be translated into English. I can hardly bear that the rest of her writing remains untranslated, so I’ve begun learning Portuguese.

Bits of Pipe

“To say exactly what one means, even to one’s own private satisfaction , is difficult.” Not for Virginia Woolf, “the Chinese Wall of a private language”. “There is no a single sentence in The Waves that you would be likely to overhear on the street.” Yet the language is intelligible. “The experience of reading The Waves can be like listening to a piece of classical music that seems at first to have neither narrative nor structure.” This is good, what I am so often drawn to in fiction. “There is not a single unfocused shot in the entire book. Every passage, every sentence, every word is hard and bright. Where Woolf wants to shade or fade for the sake of effect, she does so as a painter does so, by taking a strong line and manipulating it. This is quite different from a line unfixed or ill-drawn.”

It is the finest part of Jeanette Winterson’s zealous encomium to art and her literary passions, this chapter on The Waves. Hugh Kenner often makes a similar argument for the clarity of Beckett’s prose: “Beckett has never written an obscure sentence. He is the clearest, most limpid, most disciplined joiner of words in the English language today.” Aside, arguably from Woolf. Both wrote literature that is not possible to read quickly. In both writer’s novels there are literary allusions, though in Beckett these appear to become less literary after Watt; some rely on the memory and knowledge of the reader, some more demanding, almost rarified and private. In a letter of 1972, Beckett wrote, “They are just bits of pipe I happen to have with me. I suppose all is reminiscence from womb to tomb.”

Winterson compels a reader back to the subtlest of Woolf’s novels, as Kenner does to Beckett’s fiction. These in turn remind me to return soon to Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Geography of Rebels trilogy. There is in Llansol’s compression of thought a perpetuation of the attempt to evolve prose beyond the nineteenth century novel, which as Winterson acknowledges, still provides the form and style of at least ninety-five percent of contemporary fiction.

For a decade: 33 theses, reflections, quotes

In yesterday’s post on This Space, Steve commented in passing that Time’s Flow Stemmed recently celebrated (25th January to be precise) its tenth anniversary. While I did mention the milestone on Twitter I forgot to mark the occasion here, so in observance of this blog’s first decade, over five-hundred years after Martin Luther apparently nailed his treatise to the door of Wittenberg’s church, I offer my own 33 theses, random reflections and treasured quotes:

  1. “The work of art may have an ideology (in other words, those ideas, images, and values which are generally accepted, dominant) as its material, but it works that material; it gives it a new form and at certain times that new form is in itself a subversion of ideology.” – T. J. Clarke
  2. Prose fiction is the art of excess. It is better when large, loose and baggy
  3. Poetry, on the other hand, is the place for concentrated lyrical expression
  4. “Consciousness is only attainable after decades of being honest with yourself followed by more decades of honest observation of the world. Even then, consciousness is mostly illusion.” – John Rember
  5. Attention to form is the greatest force for literature
  6. “This, therefore, is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirror of life; that he who has mazed his imagination in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him may here be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language, by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” – Samuel Johnson
  7. Literary interpretation is inherently unstable
  8. Free indirect style is the novel’s most useful contribution to literary endeavour
  9. “If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay late and drink all the whiskey.” – William Gass
  10. There are good and bad books, artistically and possibly ethically
  11. There are also good and bad readers
  12. “I’ve described my experience of reading as immersion in a peculiar kind of fictional space. Above all, what fascinates me about that space is the idea that it might be infinite; that the world opened up by a book might exceed that outside it.” – David Winters
  13. Reading is selfish, but an essential aspect of enlarging life and the self (or illusion of self)
  14. Reading should be social; conversing about what you’ve read augments the pleasure of reading
  15. “Writing and reading are not separate, reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is already on the way to writing.” – Cixous
  16. The Death of the Author is a delusion
  17. “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” – Nietzsche
  18. We will never know the people in our lives as profoundly as we can know the characters in a novel
  19. “As for those people who will not welcome this kind of writing, which they call obscure because it is beyond their understanding, I leave them with those who, after the invention of wheat, still want to live on acorns.” – Joachim du Bellay
  20. Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable
  21. Form shapes critical thinking and enhances perception
  22. Rereading is richer than first time reading as it eliminates the distraction of suspense
  23. Most literary criticism discerns in its subjects the evidence its theories predict
  24. The problem for writers of fiction in Britain in the 20th and, so far, in the 21st century: how to write and publish brilliant, sublime prose in a country and culture that shrinks with horror from intellectualism
  25. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a rare example of a great book adapted into a great film
  26. Virginia Woolf is Britain’s last great and important novelist
  27. More than well-structured narrative, it is the texts on the fringes I keep coming back to, notebooks, diaries, letters, fragments, what Genette called pre-texts
  28. All the roots of Western literature may be found in Aeschylus
  29. Greatness and perfection are not necessarily the same thing
  30. “My writing wasn’t entirely about the books ‘under review’ so much as my internal ‘reading experience’.” – David Winters
  31. “How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel?… Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumour of the soul.” – George Steiner, Paris Review interview
  32. I find it hard to endure writing in the third person
  33. ” . . . deepening what there was in her of sweetness and listening – for this was her nature.” – Lispector

To those that read Time’s Flow Stemmed, whether for a decade, or as a recent discovery, I offer my profound thanks. I used to explain that I wrote here for myself, but that is the worst kind of deceit, a self-deceit. I am thrilled that this blog has readers and offer an apology that I am even further from understanding literature than I was at the beginning.

 

Thoughts on Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Book of Communities

So I’ll have to reread The Book of Communities. That was a clear thought within the first twenty pages of reading the first book of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s trilogy The Geography of Rebels. My state of mind at that thought: excitement and sorrow. However much I read, watch and listen to, there are always going to be vast chasms of stuff that I don’t know. That’s the sorrow. Excitement to discover a writer that has the capability to upend my world to the point I spent two sleepless nights thinking about the book. That such a thing is even possible beyond the heady days of youth is exciting.

There are comparisons to Clarice Lispector. Both writers quickly move beyond conventional narrative and push what is capable within the form of what we call fiction. But so do Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett and if comparisons must be made those are more apt. Llansol’s voices are closer to the metaphorical presences of Beckett, what she calls figures, “It is in exile, in the outside of the outside, that the network of figures, like Ana de Peñalosa, Nietzsche, Saint John of the Cross, Eckhart, Müntzer, Hadewijch, and others, takes root in order to receive the myth of the remaining life, and wonders whether there will be a place in the human body, among their bodies, where fantastic cosmogonic changes correspond to incredibly slow social mutations.” (From this excellent review of Llansol’s trilogy.)

Her use of figures allows Llansol to elude the clichés of literary characterisation and attempt to produce a feeling that is sensed rather than portrayed directly. Somewhere online I read an odd post drawing an analogy between Llansol’s trilogy and Finnegans Wake. Such an analogy is only useful in contrasting the differences. I’ve not read Finnegans Wake cover to cover and suspect I may never do so, but my impression is that Joyce moves almost entirely towards abstraction, reducing his narrative to a purely verbal code. The danger is that pushed to the extreme, abstraction is rendered so richly that it becomes unintelligible mishmash. It is quite possible I am doing Joyce a disservice  (and for once agreeing with Nabokov who called the book “nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore.”) As they say on Twitter, don’t @ me.

Llansol is difficult in its own way, but never unintelligible. Her figures are subjected to deformations and subject to a series of precise sensations. It is the precision of thought that gives her story clarity and makes it a container for speculative questions about the nature of writing and close reading. I found reading The Book of Communities an intensely felt experience, nervous as much as cerebral. It is a lived experience of Merleau-Ponty’s essay on language not residing purely in the brain, but being something we do with our bodies, words are “a certain use made of my phonatory equipment, a certain modulation of my body as a being in the world.” In that sense, like poetry, it is a book that benefits by being read aloud, playing with the elisions and sound structures. Its translator, Audrey Young, from what I can tell from comparing its original online, has done an outstanding job of retaining its rich tone and rhythm.

It is the sort of book to be read with a pencil and access to good reference books or a browser. Llansol wrote the first two books several years apart, so rather than rush into the second book in the trilogy, I plan to follow the rabbit-hole leading through medieval mystics, philosophers and social history, so that when I reread The Book of Communities and its sequels I do so with a little less sorrow about all the stuff there is still to know.

Those Sixteen Years (Virginia Woolf)

Harold Bloom on Virginia Woolf’s novels:

“That genius first fully manifested itself in 1925, and continued in full strength for the sixteen remaining years of Woolf’s life. Her absolute works are Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), The Years (1937), and Between the Acts (posthumously published, 1941). Five extraordinary novels culminate with her masterpiece; once I preferred To the Lighthouse, but at seventy I reread Between the Acts more frequently . . . the best preparation for understanding Mrs. Dalloway was to read The Winter’s Tale. That would also be the proper prelude for reading Between the Acts.

* * * *

Leonard Woolf on Virginia Woolf’s novels:

The Waves seems to me a great work of art, far and away the greatest of her books. To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts should also, I think, live in their own right, while the other books, though on a lower level of achievement are, as I said, “serious” and will always be worth reading and studying”

The Pythagorean Genre

This weekend I continued reading George Steiner, a Faber and Faber paperback (1985) edition of his Language and Silence, first published in 1967. Few living writers inspire me to acquire and read all their books. Reading Steiner somehow makes the world feel more understandable. His work merits concentrated, slow reading and note taking. With an average of twenty pages, the essays are perfectly paced to allow time for reflection between each.

Steiner is one those great readers, on a list with Nabokov, Empson and Woolf, who seem to have read everything worth reading. He’s also a terrific prose stylist. In a field (the literary essayist) filled with overinflated reputations and accompanying egos, his literary criticism is erudite, smart and always reaching toward larger themes.

A favourite essay so far is The Pythagorean Genre, ostensibly about the decline of the novel:

“But there are other possibilities of form, other shapes of expression dimly at work. In the disorder of our affairs–a disorder made worse by the seeming coherence of kitsch–new modes of statement , new grammars of poetics for insight, are becoming visible. They are tentative and isolated. But they exist like those packets of radiant energy around which matter is said to gather in turbulent space. They exist, if only in a number of rather solitary, little understood books.

It is not the actual list that matters. Anyone can add to it or take away under the impulse of his own recognitions, It is the common factor in these works–the reaching out of language towards new relations (what we call logic), and in a wider sense towards a new syntax by which to tempt reality into the momentary but living order of words. There are books, though not many, in which the old divisions between prose and verse, between dramatic and narrative voice, between imaginary and documentary, are beautifully irrelevant or false. Just as criteria of conventional verisimilitude and common perspective were beginning to be irrelevant to the new focus on Impressionism. Starting in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books have appeared which allow no ready answer to the question: what species of literature am I, to what genre do I belong? Works so organised–we tend to forget the imperative of life in that word–that their expressive form is integral only to themselves, they modify, by the very fact of their existence, our sense of how meaning may be communicated.”

Steiner gives some examples of an ‘apparently discontinuous, idiosyncratic series’ that he calls the ‘Pythagorean genre’, beginning with Blake and Kierkegaard, embracing Nietzsche, Péguy, Karl Kraus, possibly Walter Benjamin ‘had he not died early’, Broch, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and ending with Ernst Bloch, ‘the foremost living writer in the ‘Pythagorean genre’.